Thursday, January 03, 2008

Native Plant Profile: Bergamot

Moptop, originally uploaded by pawpaw67.

I heard on my Wiggly Wigglers podcast that the crew did not know what bergamot is. It is a wildflower native to eastern North America in the genus Monarda.

In the fall of 2004 I purchased my first four native plants: rosinweed, cup plant, prairie smoke, and bergamot. The former three were purchased to aid my plant identification skills. My job often require me to identify rare plants before or long after they have bloomed, and I thought (rightly) that seeing them everyday would give me a familiarity with these state threatened plants. Bergamot was my first plant purchase with the goal to attract wildlife to the garden. Many gardeners are familiar with a close cousin of bergamot: bee balm. Bee balm, and to a lesser extent, bergamot, attract large numbers of bumblebees and the occasional hummingbird.I once spent a breathtaking quarter of an hour in a garden on the campus of the University of Maine, where a veritable hedge of bee balm was alive with male hummingbirds fighting over the profusion of red blossoms. It was a formative experience, and I have yearned for hummingbirds in my garden ever since.

Every plant has personality. Bergamot loves sun, and will form large colonies if given the chance. It blooms in mid summer, but should be planted behind a good fall plant, like an aster or goldenrod. Like bee balm, bergamot gets downy mildew – especially if you water the garden – most especially if you water in the evening. The white droopy leaves look pretty sad through fall, but the stem stays erect into the winter and adds interest with its seed heads, which also make excellent snowman facial features.

I have heard that bergamot is also used to make an aromatic tea and was a common medicine for Native Americans.

Bergemot is not rare in the wild, and it is often found in native prairies, savannas, or old fields and pastures.

(Note to European readers, the European “bee balm” and American “bee balm” are two totally different plants. American bee balm, Monarda didyma, you may know as “Oswego Tea.”)

P.S. The photo is not my own. Suffice to say I did not have a good pic in my files and they are not blooming right now.

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